A recent study illustrated with three-dimensional life what related research has indicated primarily with boring numbers: Untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) impairs driving and increases the risk of traffic accidents.

Though its findings aren’t surprising, this new look at OSA and driving arrives amid a broader discussion of sleep apnea’s dangers and whether more-stringent testing for commercial and public-transportation drivers should be implemented.

man sleeping on his steering wheel

Sleep Apnea Behind the Wheel

In a study led by researchers at St. James’s University Hospital in England, 129 participants with untreated OSA took runs in a driving simulator that assessed deviations in lane position compared with 79 control drivers. Scientists also noted each participant’s score on the Epworth sleepiness scale (which gauges an individual’s level of drowsiness), body mass index (a measure of body fat based on weight and height), and oxygen desaturation index (the number of times per hour of sleep that the blood’s oxygen level drops below its baseline).

The latter two factors are important because obesity is a risk factor for OSA, and sleep apnea is accompanied by episodes in which breathing is interrupted multiple times per hour during sleep. Many people with OSA don’t realize these apnea events occur, and sleep apnea sufferers tend to feel chronic sensations of drowsiness or fatigue.

According to a Sleep Review Magazine article about the study, lane deviations were significantly worse among those with OSA compared with the control group. OSA patients also admitted to feelings of sleepiness while driving and reported more instances of nodding off behind the wheel.

Sleep Apnea in the Public Eye

The study was presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, and it was intended in part to identify the extent of the risks of driving with untreated sleep apnea. Its authors also hoped to contribute to a greater dialogue about establishing objective, far-reaching tests for obstructive sleep apnea. That is also an ongoing conversation in the United States.

Research related to sleep apnea and its effects on driving has received substantial media attention in recent months as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration consider whether to implement mandatory OSA testing and treatment for commercial drivers and railroad operators. According to a Sept. 15 article in the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health magazine, nearly 30 percent of commercial vehicle drivers are thought to suffer from OSA.

The proposed rule is backed by considerable science. A 1998 study found an increased occurrence of motor vehicle accidents among those with sleep apnea symptoms. In 2009, research focused specifically on commercial vehicle drivers found that those with OSA were up to five times more likely to be in a crash than those without sleep apnea. Similarly, a 2015 study found that sleep apnea heightened the risk for accidents and suggested that a person with OSA is 2 ½ times more likely to be the at-fault driver in a collision than a person without sleep apnea.

Treating Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea poses a danger to others, as well as to yourself. In addition to the driving risks, sleep apnea increases your chances of developing life-threatening heart problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Sleep apnea is treatable, and treatments are not limited to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. Comfortable oral appliances similar to sports mouthguards are designed to maintain an open air passage during sleep, and they have proven successful for many patients.

If you or a loved one suffers from chronic snoring or routine daytime fatigue, Denver sleep apnea dentist Dr. Kevin Berry is here to help. Please call the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado at (303) 691-0267 to schedule your consultation.